The Graders of the Grain

Before all of America’s grain agricultural exports leave the mouth of the Mississippi River, they must first be inspected and weighed by the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration’s Federal Grain Inspection Service

More than half of the United States’ grain exports traverse the mighty Mississippi River — a voyage that begins on breadbasket farms in Midwestern states like Illinois and Iowa and concludes (at least domestically) at grain elevators and on barges entering then leaving South Louisiana.  

To ensure that both quantity and quality levels reach standards outlined in contracts between buyer and seller, Congress created the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) in 1976. The government agency is a branch within Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration, which is part of the United States Dept. of Agriculture, and assists in transitioning seasonal harvests into the world’s food supply by putting it through rigorous product verification.

The South Louisiana sector of the Federal Grain Inspection Service covers 125 miles of the Mississippi River, from Myrtle Grove in the east to Port Allen in the west. Within that vital stretch of waterway, the FGIS stations inspectors at 10 permanent grain elevators, a handful of portable elevators positioned on floating rigs and a few on clam shell rigs during busy season, which, according to FGIS assistant manager George Banks, is quite lengthy.

“If you’re looking for a down time, I guess you’d say the time right now [April-July] but that’s not really down,” Banks says. “Come August, that’s done. It’s back and busy. We’re the largest export grain facilitator in the United States down here, and since the weather is good year round, we have to always have a proper amount of inspectors. It’s 24-7, all-year round.”

Within the Port of South Louisiana’s thumb print, FGIS inspectors man grain elevators at ADM Destrehan, ADM AMA, ADM Paulina, ADM Reserve, Cargill Reserve, Bunge Destrehan and Zen-Noh Convent.  

“We have standards on each grain – corn, soybeans, sorghum and wheat,” Banks says. “And our guidelines are used on each of those to assess the various factors. We could have a ship come in with a million bushels that they’re exporting out of the country, and those million bushels we’ll divide into sub lots – 60,000, 80,000 or 100,000 (bushels). And within those sublots and components, we have an inspector and technician checking for things like infestation, odor, and several other factors.”

Standards and procedures that the FGIS and the state and private facilities use are all outlined in the United States Grain Standards Act and the Agricultural Marketing Act. The FGIS has established specific grading standards for: barley, canola, corn, flaxseeds, mixed grain, oats, rye, soybeans, sorghum, sunflower seeds, triticale, wheat and rice — each with quality thresholds pertinent to the makeup of the product.

For instance, with corn, FGIS inspectors analyze portions of the prepared sample only after separating broken corn and foreign material.  Once done, the inspector can assign a grade of either U.S. No. 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 (U.S. No. 1 being best) depending on the results of factors being graded.

To earn a gold-star U.S. No. 1, the corn must have a minimum test weight of 56 pounds per bushel and must be 97 percent undamaged kernels and 99.9 percent undamaged kernels because of heat exposure. When dropping down to the U.S. No. 5, those markers dip to a minimum test weight of 46 pounds per bushel and must be 85 percent undamaged kernels and 97 percent undamaged kernels because of heat exposure. The shipment is agreed upon based on the export contract between buyer and seller, and the overall shipment grade is determined from the average of individual sublots that are graded.

Comparatively, grading for wheat is much more complex because of the number of different classes of the product — eight to be exact: Durum wheat, Hard Red Spring Wheat, Hard Red Winter wheat, Soft Red Winter wheat, Hard White wheat, Soft White wheat, Unclassed wheat and Mixed wheat. Muddling matters even more, there are various subclasses within those individual classes. Like the corn-grading process, approved devices may be used to separate foreign matter prior to testing. Weight per bushel again is a factor when determining a grade, as is the percentage of materials, like stone and animal filth, in the sample, along with wheat kernels damaged by insects.

The Grain Inspectors, Packers & Stockyards Administration is just as particular when selecting the type of equipment that can be used to conduct FGIS testing. This means ALL equipment including but not limited to: Automatic Bulk Weighing Systems, dividers, mixers, scales and even the type of lighting used in the facility and the type of work surface used during the grading process.

– William Kalec